Disclaimer: Not mine, not making any money.

Author's note: This is the second story in this AU and is a direct sequel to Arrivals. Kudos to the creators of the Little Britches AU. Thanks to Helen for proof reading and Nancy for all the technical help with the graphics. This AU if open to any one who wants to play in it.

It had been just two nights since the two runaway orphans had come to Four Corners, two nights and three days; tomorrow the judge came to town. Chris and Buck had somehow wound their way into the hearts of the town’s five regulators and taken up residence, they had their own room over the jail, sandwiched between that of the sheriff, JD Dunne, and the leader of the five, Vin Tanner. But it wasn’t just the five lawmen that were now under their spell. Mrs Potter at the general store doted on them; she was already in the habit of giving them a cookie every time they went in the shop. Inez, who managed the catering at the Standish Tavern took it upon herself to feed them, especially Chris who was altogether too thin for her liking. Tiny at the livery kept extra carrots handy because Chris liked to come in and feed Vin's spare horse Pony whenever he got the chance.

If the men were apprehensive about the coming day as they gathered at the jail for their third 'family' supper, the boys were excited, especially Buck, tomorrow he finally got his new boots. The day that has just passed had been good too. Using the money the men had found while clearing out what was now the boy's room, Chris and Buck now had a healthy supply of socks and under-things and a hat each. The child-size clothing they had found had been thoroughly cleaned and they now possessed not one but two changes of clothing, albeit somewhat on the big side for Buck, but Miss Blossom, who had taken a real shine to Buck, was diligently taking them in for him. It was decided not to bathe the boys this night, so they were upstairs in what they now called 'their room' washing with JD's help. Strictly speaking he was helping Buck wash, but found it necessary to remind Chris that washing did involve soap and some body-water contact.

"What are…yuck! You gottited in my mouth, JD." Buck spat out the soap.

"Sorry, what were you going to say?" JD was definitely a novice parent.

"What are we gonna have for supper?"

"Vin's favourite, Chicken and dumplings," JD explained.

"Is it really Vin's favourite?" Chris asked.

"Yup, reckon he’d eat it almost every day if'n he could, so long as he got a steak every now and again. Why?"

Chris just smiled and shrugged, secretly delighting in the fact that Vin and he shared a likeness for chicken and dumplings. Chris' mom made the best Chicken and Dumplings in the world; at least that was what his Pa used to say.

While the boys and JD were upstairs the table was laid and Ezra dispatched to fetch the said chicken delicacy. Just after he left the sound of a carriage was heard outside. Not a wagon, that was for sure, but a carriage. Curiosity piqued, the other men walked out to see who had come calling. There descending from his dusty but expensive rig was His Honour Judge Orin Travis. The three men stood in worried silence. This was not meant to be, the judge was due tomorrow, not tonight, they had it all planned.

+ + + + + + +

"Howdy boys, good to see you - what? Is this a welcoming committee?" He got no response. Travis glanced down at himself and finding nothing wrong over his shoulder, only to see Standish walking back toward the Saloon carrying a small pail with a lid on it, even in the fading light steam could be seen rising from the container. "Boys, is something wrong?" The judge finally asked.

"No sir," Vin said a little too quickly. "It's just we wasn't expecting you 'till tomorrow is all."

"No? Well I reckon it's good t' keep people on their toes, show up unexpectedly occasionally. Is that supper Standish is carrying over here?"

"Umm yes, yes chicken…" Vin's voice trailed of as his mind was distracted by other things, two other things to be precise.

"Good 'cause I'm famished." With that the judge brushed past the men and into the big parlour.

"Chicken…and…dump…lings…chicken…and…dump…lings…chicken," Buck was calling out each word or syllable as he bounced down each step.

Finally he reached the bottom step and found his way to the table blocked by a pair of dusty black boots. Looking up he located a rather craggy but smiling face.

"H'lo," he said.

Judge Travis looked down at him. "Hello to you too, and who are you?"

"I'm Buck." With that, just as he always did, just as his Ma had taught him he held out his hand.

The judge bent down to take the proffered hand and shook it. "I'm Judge Travis, very pleased to meet you Buck." With that he stood up and looked at JD and the taller blond boy now standing just behind him looking very apprehensively at him. "JD," he greeted the young sheriff. "And who do we have here?"

"That's my friend Chris," Buck announced looking up at the judge. "Do you want some supper, we're having Chicken and dumplings 'cause it's Vin's favourite, I don't know if there is a chair for you but I 'spect we can find one."

Buck had by now taken the judge by the hand and was leading him over to the table; he seemed oblivious to the looks on the faces of the other men or Chris' look of horror. On reaching the table Buck led the judge to the head of the table opposite where Vin sat.

"You sit here," he announced before making his way over to his own seat, which he identified by the cushion, which he needed to be able to sit at table and reach.

Finally coming out of their own haze of inactivity the men came to table, JD fetched the desk chair from the jail office as Nathan laid an extra place. Chris, still looking scared, took his seat next to Vin, relaxing a little when Vin smiled at him reassuringly.

The adults ate in strained and stunned silence; Buck chatted happily away to the judge as he ate, ignoring Chris' attempts to get him to be quiet. Finally Josiah could stand it no longer. He just had to know why Buck was acting this way.

"Buck?" he asked.

"Yes 'Siah,"

"Buck do you know what a Judge is?"

"Of course." Buck didn't see any point telling Josiah what he knew because he just assumed everyone knew what judges were.

"Can you tell me?" Sanchez prompted.

Buck looked up puzzled, he reckoned Mr Josiah was a smart man - how come he didn't know? "Well, see, a judge is a very importan' man, an' he can do whatever he wants and have what he wants an he don't never have to pay." He leaned over to whisper to Josiah. "You have to be very nice to judges Mr Josiah, so they will 'member you."

"Judges can have what they want and never have to pay?" Travis reiterated with a raised eyebrow. "How interesting, Buck, who taught you that?" he asked before any of the men could stop him.

"Miss Lou and my Ma of course." With that Buck turned his attention back to his peach pie.

"You know I get the feeling there are going to be some interesting discussions this evening." Travis looked around the five men at the table.

Chris was now very worried. Originally he wanted just to stay in Four Corners until they were rested and Buck had boots to wear, then move on and look for the West, but Vin said Four Corners was the West. Then things had got really complicated because Vin and the other men said they wanted to help them and protect them, they had their own room and new clothes. Buck really liked JD and Mr Ezra, and he liked Vin. He was secretly hoping they could stay here, that this was the new home in the West his Pa had told him about. But he knew judges were important men, they could make people do things, maybe he would make them go back, even though Vin had promised they would never have to go back. Adults didn't always keep their promises, even when they tried to. His Pa had promised to look after him for always.

Chris was still lost in his own thoughts and worries when he hard Vin call his name. "Chris? You all right?" he asked anxiously.

"Yes sir," Chris replied almost automatically.

"I suggest you an' Buck go up stairs and get ready for bed, then you can come and say good night before Mr Ezra tells you a story," he suggested.

"Yeah! A story!" Buck was already down from the table and heading for the stairs.

Chris followed more slowly, it was quite early still, so he knew they were being got out of the way so the adults could talk about them. They duly dressed for bed, and came downstairs to say good night, by then the table was clear and the men had sat down at the far end of the room with mugs of coffee. Buck hugged everyone goodnight except the judge with whom he shook hands. Chris just said a respectful collective 'good night' before following Buck up stairs beside Ezra.

+ + + + + + +

Once they were gone Travis turned to the men. "Well? Who is going to start?" he demanded.

Vin, as ever, took the lead, he told the fair-minded justice everything that had happened and everything they knew about the boys, including their suspicions about Buck's mother, which at least explained his attitude to judges! Vin finished with his determination that the boys would not only not return to the orphanage they had come from, or in fact any orphanage.

"So what do you intend to do?" Travis asked.

Vin and JD looked at each other; this was something they had discussed, but not with the others.

"We want to keep them," Vin stated plainly.

The two youngest men in the room looked at their older colleagues. Josiah and Nathan looked pleased, Travis just incredulous.

"Boys," he finally said quietly. "That is admirable but impractical."

"No, not really," JD reasoned. "We talked about it, we have room here at the jail, Vin's gonna move in permanent, Nate and Josiah will help watch 'um." They hadn't asked them but JD was hoping the other two would go along with the plan. Their smiles told him, he was right. "And Ezra just dotes on them 'specially Buck," he finished.

Travis hated to burst their bubble, but he had to get them to look at the implications.

"They must have guardians some place, either this St John's place or the state where they came from, if they are to stay here you have to get guardianship and you can't get it."

"Why not?" Vin demanded.

"Well…even assuming a court would give custody of two such young children to a single man, non of you are what the courts call fit parents." He put his hands up to stop the inevitable barrage of protests. "I'm not saying you wouldn't make wonderful fathers, but the court won't look at that. They will see a kid too young to be their father." He looked at JD.

"I'm old enough to be Buck's Pa," JD protested.

"Maybe." Travis turned to Vin. "A former bounty hunter, who used to have a price on his head and was raised by Comanches." He moved from Vin's angry flushed features to Josiah. "A former priest, who left the church under a cloud and is know for his violent temper and…" he looked sympathetically at Nathan. "Although I believe you, Mr Jackson are excellent parent material, you and I both know no court is going to grant guardianship of two white boys to a black man, don't we?" Nathan reluctantly nodded. Finally Travis looked up at the stairs. "And I don't think a professional gambler, saloon and bordello keeper would be any more acceptable."

It had all seemed so simple the night before, but now that it was spelled out like that, so clinically it really was hopeless, what were they thinking? JD was doubly glad they had not told the boys of their plan. Vin seethed with the pious injustice of it all. The Comanche looked after their own orphans, not to mention white men's kids that no one wanted. They just let someone who loved them raise them, their sex, marital status, age, and past misdeeds were of no interest so long as the kid was happy and loved.

"There must be families around here who would take them?" Travis speculated.

"Oh yes indeed," Josiah explained. "Especially two tall boys, boys who will grow up big and strong, assuming their backs aren’t permanently bent from all the labour they will be doing. Folk around here don't want kids, they want labour, free labour I might add."

"Wouldn't be much more 'an slavery," Nathan added darkly.

Travis looked at the men around him and felt as if he had just cancelled Christmas, postponed July the 4th, imposed a curfew on Halloween and banned alcohol on New Year’s Eve.

"I hate to be the bearer of bad tidings, but I will help you get the boys settled…somewhere safe. I would like to speak to them myself, would tomorrow be all right?"

Vin nodded, he didn't look up, unwilling let anyone see just how much the judge’s words had effected him, unwilling to test his mask which he felt slipping away even as they sat there. Now it was out of reach he realised just how much he had wanted this.

"I'll just go and say good night," Vin said softly, as he rose from his chair setting down his un-drunk coffee.

"I'll come with you," JD's voice betrayed he emotions as he followed Vin upstairs.

Travis watched them go, and then turned to the remaining two men. "I had to do it," he said in response to their expressions of anger and disappointment. "To let it go on knowing it could never work out would be cruel, better to set things straight before anyone becomes too involved emotionally."

"It's too late for that brother, Vin and JD were emotionally involved about two minutes after they met them. And as for this being for the best, who are you trying to convince, us or yourself? Because you and I both know that no matter what the courts might think those two young men are Chris and Buck's best, maybe last, chance at a happy childhood. It may not be ideal, it may not be normal, it may not be easy, but it is right. The Lord meant for those two to be here, I know it. Now, Your Honour, if you have a room booked at the hotel I suggest you leave to claim it now." Josiah held the door open. He had been around too long, seen too much and experienced too much to be intimidated by judges, especially when they were as wrong as this.

+ + + + + + +

Vin and JD stopped at the top of the stairs they could hear Ezra's soft tones as he finished his tale of Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves.

"The end," he finally said softly.

"Mr Ezra?" This was Chris' voice.

"Yes Master Christopher." There followed the unmistakable sounds of Ezra pulling himself off the ground. "Why is there a judge here?"

"Well he isn't just a judge, he is the Judge, we work for him, myself, JD, Vin and the others, he is our boss if you like."

"Oh, is Vin telling him about us?"

Ezra hesitated but decided on the truth. "I am not there, so I do not know, but I expect so."

Chris made a small giggle. "What is so amusing young sir?" Ezra enquired.

"You said a poem, it rhymed," Chris explained.

Ezra went back over what he said, and smiled. "So I did, I'm a poet and I didn't know it." This produced another giggle.

Vin listening outside the door couldn't help but think he was going to miss hearing that giggle.

"Will the Judge make us go back?" This brought all the adults back down to earth with a jolt.

Ezra's voice became deeper and even quieter; so that Vin and JD could barely hear him. "Did not Mr Tanner…Vin, promise to protect you and that you would never have to go back to that place?"

"Yes, but judges are important, they can do stuff." Chris reasoned.

"Vin Tanner is a man of his word, as is JD. Believe me you will never ever go back to that place, no matter what the Judge or any judge says. Promise me you will remember that, and have faith that we will protect you"

There was an agonisingly long silence until finally Chris said. "I promise."

"Good boy. Now, I must say my goodnights, so Mr Tanner and Mr Dunne can come in and say theirs." He bent and kissed the top of Buck's head as he slept peacefully, then as the night before, he brushed the side of Chris' cheek as he wished him goodnight.

Ezra exited the room and though nothing was said, Ezra knew the other two had heard every word and that their talk with the judge had not gone well. He gave them a slight nod of acknowledgement and headed downstairs where Josiah and Nathan would fill him in on the evening’s events.

JD smiled at Chris as he knelt by the bed. He reached over Buck and lay a hand on the fair boy's shoulder. "I said I would protect you, both of you, and I will; always, all right?"

In response Chris nodded. JD looked down at Buck's small form in front of him, thumb firmly in his mouth, lying on his back, the covers kicked away from his body. JD carefully tucked him in. It had seemed so easy last night as he and Vin had sat in the boy's room planing how to care for their new charges. What had he been thinking, he asked himself? But then he knew the answer, he had been thinking how much fun it was having the boys around, how good it felt to see Buck turn to him for help and advice, how wonderful it had been to have this small boy hug him and wish him goodnight. It hadn't escaped his notice that he was the only one Buck had kissed goodnight downstairs. Finally and reluctantly he prepared to cede his place to Vin. He bent down and kissed Buck on the forehead. In response Buck mumbled, it might have been "Mamma" but with the thumb in his mouth it was hard to say.

"Hush now little one, sleep, hush." With that he stepped back.

"Hey there you, yer meant to be asleep," Vin said quietly as he came to the bed, looking at Chris.

"It was a good story and I wanted to see you, Mr Ezra said you were waiting outside," Chris explained.

"I know I heard and I want you to mind what he said, we will always protect you, both of you." He bent to ruffle Buck's shaggy hair, and then reached over his slumbering form and lay his hand along Chris' cheek. "Always," he reiterated.

Chris heart soared, there was such certainty in Vin's voice, such warmth in his strong callused hand as it lay against his cheek, it was similar to Mr Ezra's touch, but Mr Ezra's hand was smooth, his touch brief. Vin let his hand rest there for a long time. Somehow Chris just knew that what Vin promised was true, they were finally safe. Now feeling more secure than he had in nearly two years Chris closed his eyes and relaxed into the pillow, and still Vin's hand lay on his cheek.

"Goodnight my brave warrior," Vin whispered as he finally lifted his hand away.

+ + + + + + +

Orin Travis knew the day he became a judge he wasn't doing it so people would like him. He was doing it because it was right. Doing what was right was what drove Orin Travis, he believed in justice, the trouble was justice and the law was not always one and the same. He had never been one to worry about propriety, or manners or what other people thought, but in this case he wouldn't have the final say. Whoever held the boy's guardianship was not in his jurisdiction, so the law would have to be served. As he walked over to the hotel that night he had never felt so much like a rat. When he hired five very different men to protect Four Corners he had taken a risk, especially with the two youngest. JD was a greenhorn, plain and simple, but he was also as brave as a lion, and unlike so many young men his age he was willing to learn, to recognise his own lack of knowledge and ability. Under the careful tutelage of Sanchez and Tanner he had grown into one of the finest sheriffs in the territory. And Tanner, well if ever there was an old head on young shoulders it was the enigmatic scruffy Texan. That was one of the things he regretted most about the sorry situation. He had seen just the beginnings of a light in Vin's eye. It promised that given the chance young Chris could bring out the child in Vin, a child that was buried long, long before its time.

Ezra found Josiah and Nathan waiting for him downstairs; their report on the Judge’s visit did not surprise him. Nor the news that Vin and JD wanted to keep the two runaway boys. If they had not offered he would have. He liked Chris; he was brave, loyal and resourceful. But it was Buck who had captured his heart. Buck was so full of fun and joy, he wanted to make everyone happy, and he tried so hard to please. He reminded Ezra of another little boy he had known once. A little boy who wanted to please, who wanted to be liked, and in order to try and please the one he loved, he had done things that had changed him, things that had robbed him of the joy of life Buck still had, things that had robbed him of his childhood innocence. He would no let it happen to another little boy, even if he were only to be an 'uncle', he would protect Buck's innocence and his joy with all his skill and cunning and strength, even with his gun if he had to.

+ + + + + + +

Come the morning Chris was still apprehensive, but Buck was beside himself with excitement because today was the day he got his new boots. He was in full bouncing mode at breakfast chattering away about all the places he was going to go once he had his new boots. Finally JD had to bring him down with a bump. He hated to do it but it was sadly necessary.

"Buck son we're not gonna be able to get yer boots until later," he said once he had managed to get Buck quiet enough to listen.

"Why? I want my boots!" Buck whined.

"I know you do, but the Judge is coming this morning, he wants to talk to you and Chris."

Fear flashed in Chris' face, but Buck just looked aggrieved. "'S not fair, I want my boots." JD's heart sank, as he watched the four year old fight back tears of disappointment.

"You'll still get them but not until later today, I promise as soon as you get them we will go feed the horses at the livery. Remember we have to be nice to Judges don't we?"

Buck hitched back a sob. "Yes…I guess," he admitted. "You promise I can feed the horseys?"

"I promise."

All this time Chris had been looking at Vin, seeking reassurance. Too quietly for the other two to hear Vin said. "Trust me." It was all he needed to say to quell Chris’ fears.

At that very moment the Judge knocked on the door and let himself in. It was agreed that Buck would go first, JD could come with him but he was not to answer for him or prompt him.

+ + + + + + +

Travis sat behind the sheriff's desk; JD sat to one side of it with Buck on his knee.

"Now I know that your name is Buck," Travis began. "Can you tell me the rest of your name?"

Buck just frowned at him, he wanted to help, he had been taught to be helpful to judges but he had also promised Chris not to tell anyone his other name. After a while it became clear he wasn't going to answer.

"Well let’s try this, is Buck your full name, is it short for something, like Chris is short for Christopher?"

Buck shrugged.

"Maybe Buckley or Bucklin?" he ventured

"My name's Buck," the boy explained some what puzzled.

"All right. Now you used to live at a place called St John's, we know that because Chris told us all about it." Travis wanted the boy to know his friend and mentor had given him permission to talk about the place.

Buck nodded his conformation.

"Did you like living there?"

Buck shook his head; JD all but sighed at the stupidity of the question.

"Did you have a bed to sleep in?"

A nod.

"Did they give you food to eat?"

Another nod.

"Was the food nice?"

This time he shook his head.

"Was there enough food?" Buck just looked puzzled, so he clarified the question. "Were you hungry some times?"

"Yes, lot and lots," Buck confessed. Travis was relived he had finally got a verbal response.

"Can you tell me what the worst thing you remember was?"

"Pigs," Buck said quietly. He had been sitting on JD's lap upright with his hands on the desk, now he was leaning on the young sheriff and had taken hold of his jacket in one hand, no longer making eye contact.

"It's all right, Chris told us about the pigs," the Judge reassured. "Why don't you tell me the best thing you remember?"

Buck didn't look up but he did answer. "Chris," he said quietly.

"Buck, did people at St John's ever hurt you?"

A nod.

Damn he's back to not talking, last night he didn't stop! Orin thought and quickly realised what that should tell him.

"Did they ever say unkind things to you?"

Another nod.

"What was the worst thing someone said to you?"

"They…they…called my Ma a bad word."

"What word?"

Buck just shook his head. "Not allowed to say it, not to anyone, not ever. I promised my Ma."

Travis could imagine what the word was and he certainly wasn't going to press the boy to break a promise to his dead mother. "Buck you have been very brave, and I thank you, is there anything else you want to tell me?"

"She took my train," Buck said quietly still holding on to JD.

"She took your train? Who did?"

Buck's voice got quieter. "The lady in the funny black dress who hitted me, she took my train that Ma gived to me for my birthday and she never gived it back." This statement was followed by a small sniff. JD looked down to find Buck had tears running down his cheeks. "It was red. Ma said it was just for me, I didn't have to share it. Ma is gonna be mad at her when she gets back."

Travis looked up at JD; he thought Dunne had said both boys were orphans. In response JD gave a slight shake of the head. Travis then nodded to the door. JD took the hint and

stood up with Buck in his arms and left.

By the time he had interviewed Chris, Travis was as committed as his regulators never to return the boys to St John's. Not that Chris had told him anything that he hadn't already told Vin but it was hearing it from his own lips that made all the difference. He had no doubt the boys were telling the truth, he suspected there was more, a lot more. There was something about the way Chris told him so clinically and unemotionally about being paddled and locked in a closet that really turned the Judge’s stomach. It was as if Chris was so used to it; it no longer distressed him. And that was wrong, eight year old boys should be upset about being so mistreated, they should not come to see it as 'normal'.

He tried one last time to find out the boys’ full names and where St John's was located but Chris just wasn't ready to trust him that much yet. He was fairly sure he could locate St John's through the church, it wasn't like there were hundreds of orphanages called St John's out West, and through them get the boy's names. But he would have to be careful; to lead these people to the boys before he had a viable alternative might be dangerous.

Buck cried on JD's lap for a long time, not sobbing or wailing, just silent tears of loss. JD rocked him gently, rubbing his back and waiting for them to end. When Chris was done with the Judge, and when they were both ready he would take them to buy candy and pick up the boots. But until then he would just be a silent reassuring presence that Buck could cling to.

+ + + + + + +

When Chris came out of the office with Vin he looked very serious and worried, he kept looking up at Vin for the reassurance he needed. In response Vin would smile and give his shoulder a gently squeeze. Vin explained that he and the Judge needed to talk and Chris should go with Buck and JD to get the boots. Reluctantly Chris left Vin’s side and crossed to JD and Buck.

"Hi pal, you all right?" he asked his young friend.

Buck lifted his head from JD’s now slightly damp shirt, sniffed and wiped his nose on his sleeve, all without removing his thumb from his mouth, finally he nodded.

"Vin says we can go get yer boots now." Chris held out his hand toward Buck.

Buck sniffed once more, pulled his thumb out and took Chris’ hand. JD had to give Chris credit for not reacting to the inevitably wet and slimy state of the hand he now held. He stood to walk with them mouthing silently to Vin, ‘good luck’. Vin replied equally silently, ‘you too’.

JD explained that since they would have to pass the store on the way to Johanson’s they could get candy as well. This news brightened both boys and Chris who was leading quickened his pace instantly. Once inside the store Gloria Potter tut – tutted over the state of Buck’s face and after persuading JD to invest in a few handkerchiefs, took the four year old to the back of the store to clean him up a bit. Once this was accomplished she handed out cookies after the boys had chosen some candy, Chris chose fudge again and Buck some toffee. Considering how much mess he could make with a combination of toffee and cookie in his hands JD had to wonder why Gloria bothered to wash Buck in the first place. By now Buck was almost his old self as he began planning the rest of the day with his new boots on. JD certainly wasn’t looking forward to carrying the sticky boy and thus banned him from eating any toffee until he had boots on and could walk outside on his own. Buck took this well; he was excited about the boots and content with his cookie.

Lars Johanson had liked Buck from the start, it was rare for him to make children’s shoes, rarer still to have a customer so excited about the prospect of new footwear. Although he had made the boots as fast as he could, he had lavished a lot of extra time at his own expense on the little boots, which now sported a sheriff’s star on each side tooled into the leather. When Chris saw this he was momentarily jealous, his store-bought boots were very plain. Then he remembered his own boots, the pair his Pa had given him, sitting safely under the bed at the jail. Buck had nothing from his Ma so it was only right that this pair should be a special pair.

"Are they really all mine?" Buck asked Mr Johanson, as JD put him down on the workbench so they could put the boots on.

"Yeah, all yours, little one," the big cobbler and saddlemaker replied, smiling from ear to ear.

"Chris! Chris looked they got stars on!" Buck pointed proudly to the decorative motifs.

"They’re real handsome boots Buck, now you mind you look after them," Chris counselled.

"I will, I promise. Thank you Mr Johanson."

"You are very welcome young sir."

By now the boots were on and being laced up, which wasn’t easy since the little feet inside them kept waving around, but eventually it was done.

"Yeah, horseys, horseys, I wanna see the horseys!" Before anyone could stop him he was off the bench and out of the door.

"Buck wait!" Chris called and ran after him.

"Er thanks Mr Johanson, bye…" With that JD was also off in pursuit of the small dark figure, now tearing across the thankfully quiet street, and his blond protector.

+ + + + + + +

When it happened; it happened very fast. One minute Buck was almost across the street, Chris was halfway across and JD was just outside the saddlemakers; the next the air was full of gunfire! JD ducked behind a barrel instantly pulling his gun and trying to work out who was shooting at who. It took him no more than a moment to work out it was coming from the saloon across the street and was directed mainly at the jail. The next thing he registered was that Chris was standing in the middle of the street in the crossfire. He was just standing, making no attempt to move or take cover. Chris had his back to JD so he couldn’t see his face but if he could he would have seen a look of total bewilderment, a boy so lost and frail it would have been hard to believe he and the tough, resourceful and defiant boy who had brought himself and his young friend who knew how many miles in search of safety, were one and the same.

"Chris!" JD bellowed above the din. "Get down boy! Get down!" But to no avail he just stood there.

Small sprays of dust leapt up all around the boy as bullets and ricochets hit the ground.

"Chris please get down!" JD pleaded.

Still Chris didn’t move. JD could wait no longer he stood only for a bullet to rip into his upper arm spinning him back behind the barrel. It was his left arm and he reckoned it was not too serious, but there was no way he was going to make it to Chris now. Suddenly, out of the corner of his eye, JD spotted a figure in buckskin pants and blue shirt racing across the street toward the boy.

+ + + + + + +

Vin had come out of the jail with the judge, if not exactly happy then at least relieved that he was on their side when it came to not letting the boys go back to where they came from. At that moment Rice Jones and his gang dismounted in front of the saloon. Vin had chased Rice for the $500 bounty on his head once, and almost succeeded. He had taken Rice into custody only for his gang, lead by his son Johnny to come after him. Vin had found himself up against at least six well-armed men. He wasn’t a fool and released his prisoner before he was gunned down. Rice didn’t forget those that crossed him and Vin wasn’t about to forget he was a lawman now and let a wanted killer get away. Both men went for their guns instantly, the Jones gang following their boss’s lead.

Josiah and Nathan on hearing the gunfire came instantly to Vin’s aid. Josiah was now behind a wagon halfway down the street. Nathan was on the balcony outside his clinic on the other side of the saloon to Josiah. Thus the Jones gang were caught in a deadly three-way crossfire. They had attempted to retreat inside the saloon but Ezra was now firing at them from the inside. Now pinned down on all four sides they had no chance; the outcome was certain, and it would be bloody.

Vin had reacted to the sight of Rice Jones instinctively. The man was a cold-blooded killer pure and simple. After his tangle with Vin some four years ago he had disappeared, some reports put him in Mexico. This seemed most likely; if he had just been laying low he would have surely known Vin was in Four Corners and would not come in to town so openly. On seeing him, a face he was never going to forget, Vin pulled his mare’s leg. Before he could even speak Rice had also drawn, and he was quick, quicker than Vin, but then Vin had never been fast, but at least as quick as JD and the kid was fast. The firefight started instantly and in the confusion Vin didn’t even see Chris until he heard JD’s frantic shouts.

Without a second thought he tossed his gun at the Judge shouting. "Cover me!" Then without bothering to look back to see if the elderly justice had caught the weapon and was able to use it, he was sprinting across the street. Vin Tanner might not have been the quickest draw but he could move when he needed to. Covering the ground at an incredible rate he didn’t even break stride as he grabbed the thin boy around the waist and lifting him bodily off the ground, and continued to race across the street toward the wagon where Josiah was sheltering. Four lawmen and a judge were now laying down covering fire. Still moving incredibly fast Vin dropped to his side, his hip slamming into the ground and with Chris clutched to his chest he slid under the wagon, turning as he did so to place his body between the boy and the bullets that whipped around them. Curling up as he lay unarmed and helpless he tried to cover as much of Chris with his body as he could. Almost as quickly as it started, the gun battle ended. Rice, Johnny and two others were dead, and another wounded, fatally.

+ + + + + + +

Josiah dropped down to peer under the wagon. "He all right?" he asked the still panting Vin.

"Dunno help me out'a here." Vin extended one hand, keeping a tight hold of Chris with the other as Sanchez pulled them out from under the wagon. Once he was out Vin remained sitting on the ground with Chris still held against him.

"Chris are you all right?" he asked quietly.

But there was no response; the boy remained still, Vin could feel him breathing, his frame was rigid with tension. Josiah was squatting in front of the two of them; he glanced at Vin with a look of concern. Carefully Vin turned the boy around to sit across his lap. Chris was staring straight ahead but not focusing on anything, his breathing was coming in slow hitches, and as he sat there Vin began to feel him tremble. Showing a remarkable degree of strength Vin manage to stand without letting go of the boy, and carrying him in his arms he set out for the jail, making sure to keep Chris' face turned away from the scene of carnage in the street.

JD staggered out from the sidewalk and suddenly a feeling of such dread came over him he thought his legs would give out right then and there.

"Buck!" he shouted running toward the place he had last seen the small boy. There was no sigh of him and no response to his shouts. "BUCK!" he bellowed. "Christ, boy, where are you?"

By now the others were alerted to the fact that Buck was missing. Vin wanted to help but he realised not even JD's desperate shouts had effected Chris in any way; he just didn't seem to hear it. Vin hated to do it but he let the others look for Buck, right now Chris needed him.

Nathan had co-opted two onlookers to help him carry the wounded man to the clinic, there was no reason to guard him as Nathan doubted he would ever regain consciousness and be dead by morning. Ezra waited until Vin was safely inside before he marched the remaining miscreant into the jail. He returned quickly to help JD and Josiah search. There was no sign of the boy. They called and called and shouted and searched but he was nowhere to be found. Tiny had arrived to collect the bodies. The third one was Johnny; he had fallen between the sidewalk and the water trough, felled by a single bullet between the eyes from Ezra's gun. From the front he didn't look too bad but the small almost bloodless hole in his forehead was misleading; the whole back of his skull had been blown away. The dusty ground below him was saturated in his blood. The huge livery keeper and sometime undertaker made quick work of lifting the corpse.

"JD?" he called softly.

The frantic sheriff turned to the big man. "What?" he asked abruptly.

"I head something, under the sidewalk, just where…where the body was."

"Oh God!" JD ran to the sidewalk and dropped to his knees. The gap between the sidewalk and the ground didn't look big enough for a cat to get through let alone a boy but he could just see something under there.

"Buck?" he called softly. "Buck is that you? It's me JD."

He could see a form in the gloom, and the sound of breathing.

"Come on Buck, come on out - it's all right now, there's nothing to be afraid of, everything is all right now," JD encouraged.

Still the boy did not move or speak.

"Chris is all right, he's with Vin at home." JD had used the word 'home' without being aware of it, it was his home after all.

As he watched JD detected a new sound, the rustle of clothing as Buck moved.

"That's right … come on out, everything is going to be all right." Finally the boy was moving toward the sound of JD's voice.

JD moved back a fraction until two grimy hands emerged then he took them gently and eased Buck the rest of the way out, not letting go until the boy was in his arms. Buck locked his legs around JD and his arms around the sheriff's neck burying his face against JD's chest under his chin. For a long time JD didn't move; he just sat there holding little Buck tight until he seemed to be more relaxed.

"Hey, I think we need to get you some clean clothes, what do you think?" JD asked quietly without moving or letting go at all.

In response he felt Buck nod his head slightly. Just as Vin had done he managed to get to his feet without letting go of the boy.

"JD?" Buck small voice stopped the young sheriff in his tracks. "Is he dead?"

JD froze where he was, moving as little as possible he turned to look at Buck's face. The boy was staring past JD to the spot on the ground directly opposite his hiding place, there in the dust was a huge sticky bloodstain, where Johnny Jones had bled his last.

"Yes he's dead." JD wondered where this was going.

"He looked like Mamma did," Buck whispered. "When she went to sleep before she went to see God."

And then the floodgates opened, the little boy turned his head from the gruesome scene and cried and cried for his mother to come home to him.


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